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Forty years ago, downtown department stores were in their twilight years. Suburban malls were sounding the bell tolls proclaiming the death of the downtown stores. Looming in the distance, strip malls and big box discount stores were getting ready to lay waste to the department store.
Retailers were worried then as they are now about the future of shopping. Many predictions from 40 years ago were close to predicting the current state of retailing.
In 1973, President S Donnell of Montgomery Ward & Co stated that “Two way cable television, with its multitude of channels, makes in-home electronic selling feasible. A miniature, up-to-date, flexible and economically practical electronic catalog already is foreseeable.”
Professors Alton F Doody and William R Davidson of Ohio State predicted, “a closed circuit device that will picture merchandise. By pushing buttons the customer can order it and also pay for it by automatically transferring money from her/his bank account to the city wide shopping service.”
Although these predictions could foresee that more shopping would be done electronically, they could not forsee the medium used exactly. Cable and television screens did play a big part but in the form of fiber optic cable and computer screens.
Its true that history repeats itself although in slightly different forms. Former retail giant Montgomery Ward started out as a mail order company. Like Amazon today, Montgomery Ward had giant warehouses across the country to meet order demand. In 1908, Montgomery Ward opened a huge warehouse in Chicago which is now a historic landmark.
But low cost competitors put an end to the mail order business. In 1993, it is interesting to note that Sears Roebuck stopped its general merchandise catalog which is the same year CERN announced that the World Wide Web would be free to everyone. The announcement occurred just as the predictions from 1973 were coming to fruition.
The current state of online ecommerce retailing will meet its demise one day as well. The medium will transform and the costs of distribution will change. If history is any predictor, general merchandisers that carry many departmentalized products will stumble and fall.
In the near future, my prediction is that tablets with speciality store apps will take over the shopping experience. In another forty years, an artificial intelligent agent will do your shopping and manufacture many products to spec at or near your location utilizing 3D printing. Shopping will have then come full circle reminiscient of a time before mail order.